Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When Words Talk Back: Text-to-Speech Technology Helps Students with Reading Challenges

by Annette Cerreta

Text-to-speech technology is software that enables a computer to read text aloud with a computer voice. For many users, it enhances sight word recognition, builds understanding of grammar, improves comprehension, and increases reading efficiency and independence. It can greatly benefit students who have disabilities that affect reading, writing, and learning.

Many text-to-speech programs are available. Some are relatively simple and inexpensive ($50 or less). These basic text-reading programs, such as Natural Reader and Text Aloud, will read a variety of file formats (Word, PDF, rich text, and others) as well as most Internet pages and e-mail if you use the recommended browsers and e-mail applications. These programs also can help students listen for spelling and grammar errors in their typed text. For more information on text-reading programs and their features, see the PACER handout “Comparison of Text-to-Speech Programs.

More sophisticated and expensive text-to-speech software programs ($300 to $1,500) allow you to scan magazines, books, and other print documents directly into the program. Many such programs, including Kurzweil and Read and Write Gold, are bundled with other literacy and learning supports, such as word prediction, color highlighting, talking dictionaries, visual outlining tools, and homonym support. For more information on multifunction text-to-speech programs that scan and read, see the PACER handout “Comparing Technology for Scan and Read Tools.” Another useful comparison tool is the Tech Matrix created and maintained by the National Center for Technology Innnovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) and which allows you to compare multiple products and features.

With so many choices, you may wonder how to determine which program might be the right fit for your child. One effective approach is to make a list of the features your child needs most—such as the ability to scan or read the Internet—and then compare programs to see which ones best match your criteria. Here is a checklist of considerations when shopping for a text-to-speech software program.

Do you need the program to:

  • Read e-mail and the Internet as well as documents?
  • Scan printed materials into the computer to be read aloud?
  • Read in its own window and/or read in other applications?
  • Highlight text as it is read aloud?
  • Run on a Windows, Macintosh, or other operating system?
  • Come with computer voices that appeal to your child?
  • Include additional learning supports? Which ones?

Once you have your answers, an assistive technology (AT) specialist from the Simon Technology Center (STC) can help you find vendors that sell such programs. Most vendors offer free trial versions. If you prefer, you can schedule a free consultation with an AT specialist to show you and your child a variety of text-to-speech programs.

For more information on text-to-speech programs or these STC services, please call 952-838-9000, send an e-mail to stc@PACER.org, or visit www.PACER.org/stc/consultations.

Text-to-speech technology can provide much-needed support for students who find reading challenging. With such an array of products, prices, and resources, you can begin to explore the possibilities for your child today.

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